American dream: Senators prospect Sanderson back with Team USA for Olympics

Senators prospect Jake Sanderson. (Rena Laverty / via USA Hockey)

It’s a good thing that Jake Sanderson is adept at changing course on the fly, reacting to different situations on the ice.

Off ice, Sanderson’s hockey journey has taken myriad sudden twists: he has had to adjust to COVID-19 setbacks in the NCAA, along with having one major international opportunity stolen from his grasp -- and nearly as quickly, have another one take its place.

“That one week in December had a couple of crazy days,” Sanderson says, by phone from the University of North Dakota campus, where the Ottawa Senators prospect and kinesiology major is the preeminent defenceman for the UND Fighting Hawks.

“We were just ramping up to play Sweden (at the World Junior Hockey Championships in Alberta),” Sanderson says, of his one-game-and-out Team USA experience at the WJC.

“A couple of hours later the whole tournament was canceled (due to a COVID-19 outbreak).

"And then I returned home and got invited to go to the Olympics. John Vanbiesbrouck asked me, and it was just something that I couldn’t turn down.”

That was in early January, causing Sanderson to put away one Team USA jersey in favour of another one, this one to represent his country in the Beijing Olympics starting Feb. 4.

Sanderson’s USA team will be gathering in Los Angeles in a few days and leave for Beijing on Feb. 2. All these changes, challenges, twists and turns could rattle a young player, but Sanderson’s college coach, Brad Berry, says these audibles are right in Sanderson’s wheelhouse.

“He’s open minded and flexible and can make those adjustments,” Berry says. “When adversity hits in a quick amount of time, the better players can adjust and adapt – he’s one of those guys.”

From the outside, it was hardly a shock to see Sanderson named to the Olympic team, once it became clear that the NHL was not going to Beijing. Sanderson is “Vanbiesbrouck’s guy,” as one observer put it. Vanbiesbrouck, GM of both the world junior entry and USA’s men's Olympic team, had named Sanderson captain of the world junior team -- it was a given he would have him and a select few other youngsters be part of the American team in China.

We’re getting used to the idea of the new Olympic tournament, yet just a few weeks ago, the 19-year-old Sanderson expected to be playing against his teen peers for world junior prominence, not competing against men -- such as 37-year-old Eric Stall of Canada and “some salty old KHL players,” as Jake’s father, Geoff puts it.

A retired 17-year NHL pro, Geoff Sanderson believes that the European and Russian Olympic teams will be very strong based on their professional player pools outside of the NHL.

That Sanderson finds himself playing in the Olympics before setting foot in an NHL game is just part of the topsy-turvy
world in which we live during these COVID-19 times.

“I never really thought I’d have an opportunity to play in the Olympics, it’s such a big stage,” Sanderson says. “And then the opportunity came -- I am definitely going to take advantage of it.”

Though it is no longer ‘best on best’ hockey, Sanderson is expecting a quality tournament, full of good pros and elite younger players.

“It’s still going to be really good hockey,” Sanderson says. “Some of the best college players in the NCAA will be there and then others that are playing overseas. It’s going to be a great tournament no matter what. Any chance you get to put on that USA jersey you want to take it, I’ve been lucky enough to wear it a couple of times (at the WJC). To wear it at the Olympics is kind of a whole new thing. I think it will be really fun.”


In Beijing, hockey players will be part of a tight Olympic bubble as organizers strive to prevent any kind of COVID outbreaks that could affect the competition. Sanderson’s own UND team got hit with an outbreak just a couple of weeks ago, which resulted in the postponement of a set of games against Omaha Jan. 14-15. Sanderson was not one of the North Dakota players who tested positive.

“It was a tough time for our team, but also the whole NCHC (National Collegiate Hockey Conference), a lot of teams were getting sick,” Sanderson said. “We had about eight to 10 guys that were out – I was lucky enough not to get COVID and so I was able to go to the rink and skate and work out.”

The Fighting Hawks don’t have the depth and skill they had when fellow Senators draft picks Shane Pinto and Jacob-Bernard Docker were still at UND. At 13-9-1, North Dakota isn't the NCAA front-runner anymore, but it’s not for lack of will from Sanderson.

Hockey types can debate which is Sanderson’s greatest hockey attribute. His skating? Defensive acumen? Off-the-chart hockey sense? These features and more made Sanderson the fifth overall draft choice of the Senators in 2020 and have him among the favourites -- if not the favourite -- to win the Hobey Baker Award as top player in the NCAA this spring.

Work ethic ‘right up there’ with Toews, Parise, TJ Oshie

Tales of Sanderson being the first to the arena in the morning and the last off the ice are legend around the campus. Berry says that the six-foot-two, 190-pound Sanderson is as committed to the pursuit of excellence as any player he has coached at UND, and that includes the likes of Jonathan Toews, Zach Parise and T.J. Oshie.

“I don’t name these guys because they are high-end, elite NHL players,” Berry says. “They all had a common thing and that was their work ethic and drive -- Jake has that.”

Berry shares an example from that day’s practice.

“We had a longer skate today, probably an hour and a half -- we had some details, system stuff to get to on a Tuesday prior to the weekend games. And Jake is out here early, and he’s shooting on the goaltenders. Then we go through the practice and some guys are spent, fatigued, but Jake stays on, doing some group work with the defencemen. He’s always one of the first ones on and the last off -- he just wants to maximize his game. And not only that, he’s got that wide-eyed approach coming to the rink, that he’s excited to be here.

“He feels very fortunate to be here. And I think that’s the humble side of him.”

Already an impact player in his first college season (2020-21), with 15 points in 22 games while drawing raves for his defensive play, Sanderson has stepped up his offensive game (22 points in 19 games), but also his presence on the ice and in the room.

“This year, I really see the leadership side coming,” Berry says. “Whether we’re leading games or chasing games, Jake has a calming effect on our group here. That in itself is important, but the other part for me is just how dominant he is out there and how strong he is in all three zones.

“When the puck is on his stick, he makes a really good play, to break out, to add to transition to the offensive zone. There’s a ton of highlight clips of him (widely circulating in Ottawa) in the offensive zone, being evasive and keeping plays alive -- just having that competitive mindset but not being high-risk. As a coach, you love that trust in a player to do that shift after shift.”

To the delight of his coaches, Sanderson’s work ethic catches on.

“When your best player, Jake Sanderson, is working on the extra things after practice, everybody watches and says, ‘man, I’ve got to do that,’” Berry says.

“It raises the bar.”

Just ‘bring it’ every day

Asked to name his best attribute as a player, Sanderson goes off the board with his answer.

“It’s just bringing it every day,” Sanderson says. “All around -- on the ice and in the weight room. Just doing extra stuff. Just bring it every day and never take an off day and I feel like that’s very hard to do. I’m always making sure I’m doing my best every single day -- it’s really important to me.”

One of the reasons Sanderson feels so strongly about putting in an honest effort? To pay back the support he received along the way, especially from his mom and dad.

“My parents have always been there for me, on my side,” he says.

Leadership and maturity seem to come naturally to Jake, although his father, Geoff, says that Jake “turned into a man” when he left home at 16 to join the USA National Development Team U-17 Program out of Michigan.

“That program, with Seth Appert and Nick Fohr, and the schooling he received there and the support, I think were really important factors in Jake’s development,” Geoff says.

Humble start in hockey

Growing up in Whitefish, Montana, population roughly 6,000 when Jake was a boy (it’s about 9,000 today), Sanderson was hardly a rising star from a hockey hotbed. With just one year-round rink and a limited minor hockey program in Whitefish, the Sandersons eventually moved to Calgary so their three boys could play at a higher level.

Geoff is a stay-at-home dad in Calgary with his wife, Ellen, and Jake’s brothers, Ben and Sawyer. They maintain their Whitefish cabin, which Geoff bought years ago on the advice of his former Hartford Whalers teammate Murray Craven, and return there every summer.

A mountain resort town, Whitefish has its charms. Jake adores it and takes pride in having an opportunity to be the first Whitefish-born player to reach the NHL. But hockey development, at least 15 years ago, was not a Whitefish specialty.

“The teams Jake played on usually covered three different birth years just so we could put a team together,” Geoff says. “So, he played with his older brother, (Ben) there.”

In Calgary, Jake was not quite ready to make the top level of his age-group tryouts in his first year playing novice, atom and peewee. The second year at those levels, he would make it.

Finally, he made the Bantam AAA team in his first attempt, but the family decided to hold him back.

“We said, we don’t think you’re ready to play AAA, you need to have a good year of AA,” Geoff says.

The decision was partly based on the AAA experience the family had been through with Ben.

“Bantam AAA in Alberta is HOCKEY,” Geoff says. “It’s physical. It’s mean. The kids all develop at different ages. You get some really large, physical kids and then some small, really skilled kids that haven’t hit their growth spurt yet.

“Jake was kind of in the middle. He was a defenceman and I knew I didn’t want him to play there. I wouldn’t be able to relax watching him, that was probably the biggest thing -- I would be worried watching him play.”

(Memo to pushy hockey parents: let your child play at a comfortable level, have the puck more and enjoy the game).

The Senators have a history of drafting the sons of NHL players, with captain Brady Tkachuk being the best example. Yet, Geoff Sanderson, despite his 17 NHL seasons and 700 career NHL points, swears he had no idea his son was a hot prospect until he saw his name “shoot up the draft board.” At that point, Geoff took the time to do some comparables in the 2000 draft to come to realize Jake was a legitimate top-five pick.

JBD awards ‘under the bed’

Sanderson could be in Ottawa playing with the Senators as early as this spring, when his college season ends.

It seems a perfect fit, with a core of young players like Tkachuk, Drake Batherson, Thomas Chabot and Josh Norris, but also three past or present UND teammates in the Ottawa organization. Centre Shane Pinto and Bernard-Docker are already with the Senators (JBD has divided time in AHL Belleville and Ottawa) and Tyler Kleven is still playing with Sanderson at UND.

Not surprisingly, Sanderson is in regular contact with Pinto and JBD. He sent his sympathies for Pinto’s shoulder injury and subsequent surgery and was teasing Bernard-Docker for leaving a trophy trail at UND.

“I’m actually living in the room JBD was in the last two years,” Sanderson says.

Asked if JBD left any mementos behind, Sanderson offered up this gem:

“He actually has a couple of awards that I found under the bed,” Sanderson says, laughing. “I don’t know if he just forgot them or what. One was for, like, defenceman of the week. And the other is a plaque.”

Clearly these guys aren’t in it for the awards they get.

Ottawa’s development staff keeps in touch with Sanderson, and general manager Pierre Dorion said last week that he sent the young defenceman a message of congrats and best wishes for the upcoming Olympics, which the organization feels will only boost his development.

Development coach Shean Donovan raves about Sanderson’s approach to Year 2 at UND.

“He didn’t just go back with the attitude of, ‘oh, it will be fun to play another year in North Dakota,’ he went back with a purpose,” Donovan says. “He wants to be a player and there is no stone unturned for him as far as getting better.”

Sanderson has also spoken to Senators head coach D.J. Smith on occasion.

“I’ve had a couple of calls with D.J. and he just seems like an unreal coach,” Sanderson says. “I can’t wait to get there.”

As big a jump as the NHL is for a college player, Sanderson’s UND coach, Berry, believes the kid is ready.

“He’s got to learn some intricacies of the pro game and that he will do -- he’s a fast learner,” Berry says. “With his God-given ability and his work ethic and mindset, I think he’ll have a really good opportunity to play an impactful role right away.

“I’m not going to diminish the step that it takes. I mean, it’s a big step to get to the NHL, but when you look at him playing on the world stage . . . and the elite national development program – he’s in the Biosteel Game a couple of years ago and was the top player, he’s captain of the world junior team and now he’s going to the Olympics and playing at that level. I think that gives you a barometer of where he’s at.”

His dad is somewhat nervously excited about Jake’s newfound status as an A-list prospect. Though proud of Jake’s surge over the past two seasons, Geoff is a little concerned about the heightened expectations preceding Jake’s arrival in Ottawa. Whether he is an overnight sensation or not, Sanderson looks like a lock to become a top-four defenceman with the Sens.

Geoff laughs and then adds: “I may have to give the old Wendel Clark speech about Canadian media – that ‘you’re never as good as they say you are and you’re never as bad as they say you are.’ You’re somewhere in the middle.”

Montana boy at heart

Widely described as humble and ‘grounded,’ Sanderson would say he is grounded to the very roots of Whitefish, Montana, “a place that defines me.”

Away from the rink and off-season training, Sanderson likes nothing better than riding his mountain bike in the Montana hills or fly fishing its rivers with his dad and brothers.

“I’m not the best -- my little brother (Sawyer)’s probably the best fishermen out of all the brothers,” Sanderson says. “Normally, we’ll go on the Missouri River, about two or three hours from our house and we can catch rainbow trout, brown trout. Fish like that.

“There’s some small ones, but if you get lucky, you can get a big one.”

The Senators feel they have landed a big one in Sanderson.

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